Shell Shaker: A Chickasaw Opera

Jerod Tate


Performance forces:
3 sop, girl sop, mez, ten, boy, 2 ten, 2 bar, bass — orchestra (3(picc).3(eh).3(bcl).3(cbsn) – – timp, 3perc, hp – str) — SATB chorus



Shell Shaker is a new opera based upon the Chickasaw Indian legend of how the Chickasaw people received turtle shells for stomp dancing and ceremonies. SYNOPSIS There was once a Chickasaw girl who was not created like the other children. They called her Loksi’ (Turtle) because she tried to run and play with them but was not able to keep up. Still, she was a hard worker and kept up with her mother while doing their chores. Even though her mother told her not to play with them she would say “But they are my friends!” As time went on, the girl began to lose hope and stayed at home more, helping her mother and grandmother with the chores. Toward the evening of a summer day she was sent to get water from the creek. As she approached the water, she recalled her grandmother telling the young mothers to remember that when your heart is troubled you must go to the running river. “The water is one of the most powerful elements of the earth,” Grandmother told them. “You must drink and look into the water and tell the water your trouble. If you shed the tears of your true heart, the water will carry your troubles away. And if you listen close, the water will tell you what you must do.” The little girl followed her grandmother’s advice. She waded into the water, took a drink and looked into the water, telling the water of all her troubles and how sorry she was for being the way she was – not able to keep up with the other children. She could not help the way life had been for her, and all she wanted was to be with the other children in their daily life. The water was deeply touched. It felt her precious tears and heard her sweet voice. As the girl was crying, the water came to a standstill to listen to what she had said. The water spoke to her, instructing her to leave the village and to not tell anyone of her leaving. “You will stay away for four years, not to return within those years. Do not look back, for it will haunt you. You are to seek a vision while you are gone and learn what it teaches you. The little girl asked, “What vision?” The water answered, “You will know when it’s time.” The water fell silent and began to flow again. She did as the water had said, packing up only a few things and quietly left that same evening -letting no one know. After a twelve-day walk, she came to rest. She was very alone and eating only what she could find. She came to a spring to drink and it reminded her of what the water told her. She arrived at what looked like a good place to stay – a spring close by and vegetation and fruit trees. She made herself a hut and settled down for the winter. During the days she walked through the woods alone, gathering plants and fruit and patiently waiting for her vision. Two years passed and no vision had come. One day, while walking through the woods she came upon an old turtle. Noticing that it was moving so slowly, she laughed at it and asked, “Where are you going in such a hurry?” As she laughed, she remembered how she had been treated in the past and felt remorse. She told the turtle “You are what my people call me.” The turtle knew how she felt and wanted to hear more from her and of her life, so, she picked him up and carried the turtle wherever she went. She told him all about her people and how wonderful her grandmother was in sharing her wisdom with the young women. When it was time for sleep, the girl made a place for the turtle beside her bed so she could watch him, every night as he drifted off. Each morning she went to the spring for water to give old turtle a bath – all the time laughing, playing and talking to her friend. She kept herself very busy and entertained him while working around her little hut and taking care of what needed mending. She forgot all about time and didn’t notice that the fourth year of her journey had come. One evening, during the last winter month, the girl and turtle were in the hut singing and dancing. It was time to go to bed, so she picked up the turtle and gently put him in his place. She continued singing as she laid down on her side, starring at the turtle as she went into a deep sleep. An old turtle woman came to her during the night and spoke to her as if she were awake. The woman said, “I have come for the old turtle as it is time for him to come home. I’m the caretaker of all the turtles of the earth.” When the girl woke up, her friend was gone. She looked all around the hut knowing it could not have gotten very far. She remembered her dream but would not give up looking for him. The evening of the fourth day the girl was quietly laying on her bed, starring at the old turtle’s place. She went into a deep sleep and the old women appeared again. She told the girl “When it becomes spring of this new season you must return to your village, as four years have passed. Because you were so kind to the old turtle, he has left you a gift.” When the girl woke up the next morning, she was not a little girl anymore, but a beautiful young woman. As she arose, she looked where her friend once laid, and a set of turtle shells was in its place. She remembered that the old woman said, “When your people sing and dance you will always wear these turtle shells during the ceremony. You will keep the name Loksi’, for the old ones are so pleased and will always be with you. The turtle is the one created closest to the earth. Always remember who you are and where you came from. Never to do others as was done to you and your people will follow you.” She journeyed back to the village and arrived during the first ceremony of the opening season. The stomp dance was going strong with the men singing and everyone dancing. She quickly strapped her new turtle shells to her legs and went into the circle behind the lead singer. As they started singing, Loksi’ began her shell shaking rhythm by stomping as she danced. When the song was finished all the people came to greet her and tell her how beautiful she danced! The medicine man asked her name and she said it was Loksi’. He said an old turtle woman came to his dreams and told him that a beautiful young woman, wearing turtle shells, would soon come to dance; that she was the new turtle clan mother and that all the women would follow her shell shaking. Today you can hear the sprits of the young women and the turtles when the stomp dance is performed.